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The 30 best summer blockbusters ever

We rank the biggest fun machines of all time—the movies designed for maximum impact—from sci-fi films to comedies

This summer alone, Hollywood has produced two of the highest grossing movies in its history: Avengers: Age of Ultron (No. 6 of all time, worldwide ) and Jurassic World (No. 3). If you add in April’s Furious 7 (No. 7), it’s possible to think we’re in a golden age—at least for studio investors. But are these blockbusters any good? Clearly, there’s a model for this kind of filmmaking, refined by baseball-hatted geniuses like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and expanded into the modern era via digital effects. In arriving at our ranked list, we set a few parameters: All films had to be released between May and August (sorry, Titanic fans). All had to have grossed at least $100 million globally. And all had to be intended as high-stakes entertainments, not accidental “sleepers” like The Blair Witch Project. Read on. We’re sure you’ve heard of some of these behemoths, the best action movies, sci-fi films and comedies ever made.

RECOMMENDED: Our list of the 100 best movies of all time

Best summer blockbusters ever: 30–21

30

Independence Day (1996)

Disaster specialist Roland Emmerich had his golden moment in this one, blowing up the White House via blue alien death ray from above. The fascinating thing about it? Audiences cheered (not just Republicans, either). A taste for trashing irreplaceable symbols of governmental power was growing. Meanwhile, if you’re a Will Smith fan, here’s when he was the funniest A-list action star on the planet.—Joshua Rothkopf

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29

Armageddon (1998)

Michael Bay triggers intense reactions: He either represents the descent of Hollywood in slavish servitude to explosions and the immature tastes of 12-year-old boys, or…well, he makes his movies his way, give him that. As an unapologetic fan of Bayhem, I have my favorites, and Armageddon would have to be one of them, just for destroying Paris with a flaming meteor.—Joshua Rothkopf

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28

X-Men (2000)

Bryan Singer’s take on Marvel’s popular mutant team kicked off a renaissance of complex comic-book movies: You mean superheroes could function as social metaphors? We now get a slate of straight-faced men-in-tights movies every summer—and proof that serious and sophisticated can still be remarkably fun.—David Fear

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27

Back to the Future (1985)

Its beautifully inventive script took five years to develop; even when it got off the ground, original leading man Eric Stoltz was deemed miscast, scrapping a month of shooting. Enter Michael J. Fox (juggling his TV work on Family Ties) and a franchise was born. This was actual science fiction, the complex plot navigated by an ace cast (and a DeLorean).—Joshua Rothkopf

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26

The Dark Knight (2008)

Whether you consider this the Citizen Kane of costumed crime-fighter films or a self-important mess, you can’t help but be impressed at how Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster sold a grim bill of goods to a mass audience. Not even Tim Burton went this somber or deep; the result was both an unusual popular hit and, thanks to Heath Ledger’s morbid, prerelease death buzz, an Oscar-winning prestige picture.—David Fear

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25

WALL-E (2008)

It came from the house that Toy Story built, yet neither Pixar nor Disney had ever released anything so perversely postapocalyptic: A quirky robot cleans up a ruined, abandoned Mother Earth. The film’s critical and commercial success helped sell the notion that pop animation could be more than just princesses and fart jokes.—David Fear

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24

Star Trek (2009)

It’s easy to lose sight of how daunting the task must have seemed: Relaunch the most beloved sci-fi property of all time—and without benefit of the original cast. J.J. Abrams’s dazzling stunner elicited rueful smiles from even the most committed Trekkie, while returning playful banter to the Bridge via its Obama-era yes-we-can crew. Warp speed was never faster.—Joshua Rothkopf

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23

In the Line of Fire (1993)

Fans of Dirty Harry flipped over the idea of Clint Eastwood, recently an Oscar winner for Unforgiven, returning to the cop genre, hopefully with plenty of scowls for punks. But what they got was decidedly complex: Eastwood as a failed Secret Service agent haunted by insecurities and doing battle with a new kind of threat (John Malkovich, playing one of the weirdest villains Hollywood ever produced).—Joshua Rothkopf

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22

Gremlins (1984)

You remember the rules, right? No bright light. No water. And no food after midnight. But what would a summer blockbuster be without broken rules? Subtly, Joe Dante’s horror-comedy parodied the very idea of Hollywood toy manufacturing, especially after its adorable mogwais go rogue. Indeed, the violent film may have been too dark: Only a month after its release, the PG-13 rating was introduced.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Best summer blockbusters ever: 20–11

20

Gladiator (2000)

No one brings the huge like Ridley Scott, recapturing the grandeur of his earlier landmarks Alien and Blade Runner with this massive-feeling Roman-era epic. Computerized tigers and Russell Crowe cemented the appeal, leading to an unusual Best Picture Oscar for a summer blockbuster. Are you not entertained? Maximus’s question was moot.—Joshua Rothkopf

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19

Batman (1989)

These days, we get several new superhero movies every summer, complete with teaser trailers, logos and multimedia branding, all of which works like catnip on the target audience. It’s amazing to think that these marketing tactics all had to be invented—and were for Tim Burton’s 1989 smash. When the movie finally arrived, it was shocking how morose it was (take that, Christopher Nolan).—Joshua Rothkopf

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18

Animal House (1978)

This Rosetta stone of raunchy comedies turned gross-out laughfests into a cottage industry, establishing a surefire-success template: gonzo humor plus profanity and nudity equals a hit. Everybody from Judd Apatow’s beta males to the Frat Pack’s spastics can thank this monument to men behaving badly for their careers.—David Fear

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17

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Harry Potter fans saw their idol come to cinematic life via some sincere, slightly-less-than-magical films, but but the time this third installment arrived, the filmmakers had figured out how to make a thrilling movie from the material. Credit director Alfonso Cuarón (later of Gravity), who departed significantly from the text yet served the spirit of J.K. Rowling’s growing pains.—Joshua Rothkopf

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16

The Truman Show (1998)

Is Jim Carrey the great “lost” American actor? The comedian surely has plenty of good will and a fortune to burn. But for a span of time, he was also a dramatic actor to be reckoned with, and Peter Weir’s prophetic satire was the beginning of that phase. Trapped unwittingly on his own TV show yet beloved by millions, Carrey’s uneasy Truman Burbank is a Kardashian without a cause.—Joshua Rothkopf

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15

Total Recall (1990)

Call this Martian thriller a Schwarzenegger vehicle if you must, but we like to think it as a Verhoeven vehicle—namely one for perverse Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct, Showgirls) in which he can show off his affinity for hard-R gore, gratuitous nudity and an unlikely strain of dorky humor. “Screw you!” our hero says, after he impales some dude with an industrial drill.—Joshua Rothkopf

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14

Die Hard (1988)

Is this the greatest action movie of all time? You won’t have any disagreements from us: Almost 30 years later, the sturdy inventions of Die Hard’s premise—one man, one terrorist-besieged office tower, one smelly T-shirt—continue to impress. Bruce Willis made a natural leap to the big screen from Moonlighting, and Hollywood continues to search for a new action script that’s this perfect.—Joshua Rothkopf

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13

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Animation for grown-ups has evolved over time, from Fritz the Cat to today’s Pixar cryfests. Here’s the transition: a brilliant pivot point that bridged live action to voluptuous hand-drawn curves (yes, we mean Jessica Rabbit). Also connected here for the first time were two glorious Hollywood traditions: Warner Bros. serial toons and the urban conspiracy drama straight out of Chinatown.—Joshua Rothkopf

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12

Jurassic Park (1993)

The park’s back open with Jurassic World, but all that pretender did was make us wish we were watching Steven Spielberg’s original, a terrifying balance of digital effects, animatronic puppet work and a brainy cast (Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum) that discussed genetic ethics without boring the crowd. It remains the first and last word in toothy rumbles in the jungle.—Joshua Rothkopf

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11

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Underrated for its political daring, this dynamic third installment of Matt Damon’s amnesiac-spy saga returned Jason Bourne to Manhattan, to confront his spook superiors about their illegal operations. Director Paul Greengrass was just coming off United 93; in many ways, this was its fictional counterpart, equally timely and suffused with rage.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Best summer blockbusters ever: 10–1

10

Aliens (1986)

James Cameron? Sure—he was the kid who had just turned Conan into a cyborg with 1984’s The Terminator. But could Hollywood entrust the whippersnapper with one of the most anticipated follow-ups in sci-fi history? Sigourney Weaver was won over by the director’s passion for making the mother of all monster movies; embedded in his futuristic war film’s DNA was also an antimilitary critique and a strongly feminist statement about self-sufficiency. A tense shoot and last-minute editing didn’t help buzz. But Cameron was already setting the template for all of his subsequent risks: Double down on your own confidence and let doubters be damned.—Joshua Rothkopf

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9

Face/Off (1997)

It must be the most ridiculous concept Hollywood ever threw money at: Have our hero and villain surgically swap faces. (Never mind the how-tos.) As a literalization of action-movie psychology, the plot still gets giggles in theaters, and not just from medical professionals. Still, no summer movie was blessed with a more committed cast and crew. One leading man, Nicolas Cage, was just coming off a Best Actor win for Leaving Las Vegas; the other, John Travolta, was only recently rebounding as a mouthy, zesty star. Both studied the other’s mannerisms, allowing for plenty of self-parody and stretching. Still, the triumph belonged to Hong Kong transplant John Woo, finally in command of all his powers and gifts. He never topped this.—Joshua Rothkopf

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8

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

He said he’d be back. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s time-traveling, mechanized killer returns as a good guy, ready to serve and protect future warrior John Connor (Edward Furlong) from a liquid-metal assassin (Robert Patrick). Director James Cameron continued to push the limits of CGI technology with Patrick’s T-1000—he’s the water snake in The Abyss made spike-through-the-eye deadly. And Arnie gets to stretch some of those emotional muscles he worked in Total Recall with the boy-and-his-dog relationship between him and Furlong. This blockbuster still works best when Cameron lets his cybernetic creations whale on each other and anything in their way.—Keith Uhlich

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7

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The reveal to end all reveals (“I am your father!”) is just the cherry on top of the darkest of the six Star Wars movies. This installment of the adventures of Luke, Han, Leia et al. takes on a tragic grandeur that the other chapters never quite attain: There’s melancholy in every frame, from the unforgiving icy landscapes of Hoth to the swampy murk of Dagobah. And the ending, with the characters scattered and the future uncertain, is devastating. Empire never pulls its punches, which is pretty impressive given that this was easily the most anticipated sequel of all time.—Keith Uhlich

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6

Fahrenheit 9/11

Trust the king of populist muckraking, Michael Moore, to make the first documentary to achieve bona fide blockbuster status. It helped, of course, that he’d chosen to tackle hot-button topics—George W. Bush, the nebulous War on Terror, “Mission Accomplished”—at the exact moment that our divisive commander-in-chief was campaigning for a second term. The blustery filmmaker tapped into a growing anger on both sides of the partisan fence, expanding the political debate into multiplexes across the country. It became required viewing for anyone who wanted to weigh in on current affairs—and, in the process, whetted the public appetite for nonfiction movies.—David Fear

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5

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

After being left behind on Earth, a diminutive alien visitor (a triumph of animatronic effects work by Carlo Rambaldi) befriends young suburbanite Elliott (Henry Thomas). They’re both damaged beings—E.T.’s abandonment mirrors Elliott’s pain over his parents’ divorce—who learn to cope with their respective situations even as they look helplessly to the skies and, in the most iconic image, fly gracefully past the moon. E.T. is one of Steven Spielberg’s most personal works, yet was still a border-defying blockbuster—the highest grosser of all time until Jurassic Park supplanted it.—Keith Uhlich

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4

Ghostbusters (1984)

“Don’t cross the streams!” is sound advice if you’re operating a plasma gun. Ironically, that’s exactly what Ivan Reitman did with this blockbuster, mixing SNL’s snarkiness, horror-lite spookiness and the breakneck pacing of an action flick. (Having Bill Murray, an instantly iconic logo and Ray Parker Jr.’s infectiously catchy theme song didn’t hurt either.) This monster hit broke the bank by demonstrating that mashing up popular genres equaled a something-for-everybody box office bonanza. Every big-budget sci-fi-action comedy that’s goosed multiplex audiences owes this movie a mother-pus-bucket of a debt.—David Fear

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3

Star Wars (1977)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, people didn’t make pop-cultural touchstones from cannibalized bits of Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell and Flash Gordon. In fact, when George Lucas screened a rough cut of his pulpy cosmic adventure for his film-brat peers, they offered better-luck-next-time condolences. (One person did congratulate him: Steven Spielberg.) When Star Wars finally came out right before Memorial Day, 1977, those same directors watched their bearded buddy reroute Hollywood for the next few decades. Suddenly, space was the place, a movie’s merchandising was enormously important, and the era of the global blockbuster went into interstellar overdrive.—David Fear

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2

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Is there a more purely perfect action hero in all of adventure flickdom than Indiana Jones? (Tom Selleck must still be kicking himself for turning down the role.) Even if audiences knew nothing from the cliff-hanger serials from the 1930s and ’40s—the original inspirations—they did know about Nazis, biblical wrath and snakes. Lots of snakes. Furiously propulsive, Raiders is a triumph of cutting and craft, with composer John Williams having an especially good day in front of the orchestra. But the prime movers behind the project were producer George Lucas, a key creative collaborator, and director Steven Spielberg, brilliant with actors and redemptive moments of humor. If the boy geniuses had indeed won over Hollywood, this movie forecasted a benevolent kingdom.—Joshua Rothkopf

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1

Jaws (1975)

Imagine a mammoth, sharp-toothed creature that takes cold-eyed pleasure in terrorizing its victims—one that must move forward constantly or perish, that quietly circles its prey before attacking with lightning speed. Now imagine a shark. Given the way that Steven Spielberg’s nail-biter goes after audience’s nervous systems, the film’s resemblance to its leviathan isn’t coincidental: Multiplex thrill rides had never seemed so ruthlessly, efficiently predatory. This was the game-changer, the first to employ a “wide-release” strategy, the first to gross more than $100 million, the moment when this director became “Steven Spielberg,” the template for the must-see modern summer movie. After Jaws, every moviemaker who wanted to leave viewers giddy and gasping knew they’d need a bigger boat.—David Fear

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Comments

2 comments
Lars T
Lars T

Who is calling or has ever called the Dark Knight a self important mess? That's like a throw away line about how you believe 9/11 was an inside job. Speaking of, I thought this was a list of the "biggest fun machines" ever, and Farenheit 9/11 was number 6. Why is a documentary about one of the worst days in American history and the corruption of our government on a list of summer fun movies? It's like you assembled a list of your favorite mammals and one of David Fear's choices was the color green.

Gabriel
Gabriel

Where is Harry Potter- Deathly Hallows Part 2? IT WAS SOOO EPIC :)